HUI 216 - Unit 8, Topics 1-2
"The grand strategy of the Roman Empire"

Andrea Fedi

8.1 Grand Strategy

[Notes] —This section is based on excerpts from The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, by Edward N. Luttwak, 1976 (Johns Hopkins UP, 1979, pp. 1-5).

The interconnected goals of Roman society and of its government were

  • security;
  • stability;
  • prosperity.

"In our own disordered times, it is natural to look back for comfort and instruction to the experience of Roman imperial statecraft. No analogies are possible in the economic, social, or political spheres of life, but in the realm of strategy there are instructive similarities. The fundamentals of Roman strategy in the imperial age were rooted not in a technology now obsolete, but in a predicament that we share. For the Romans, as for ourselves, the two essential requirements of an evolving civilization were a sound material base and adequate security. For the Romans, as for ourselves, the elusive goal of strategic statecraft was to provide security for the civilization without prejudicing the vitality of its economic base and without compromising the stability of an evolving political order." (Luttwak)

System of security

[Notes] — The Roman weapon technology and the military tactics of the Roman army were not always superior to those of the enemy. They were not the determining factors behind the sustained success of the Roman State.
The system of imperial security created by the Romans in time was based on

  • politics and diplomacy;
  • a military network (roads, supply lines and deposits, barracks, defense lines, warning posts);
  • an army of professionals (not heroes or redshirts, i.e. expendable 'extras').

Resilience was the main advantage of this system.

"Had the strength of the Roman Empire derived from a tactical superiority on the battlefield, from superior generalship, or from a more advanced weapons technology, there would be little to explain, though much to describe. But this was not so. Roman tactics were almost invariably sound but not distinctly superior, and the Roman soldier of the imperial period was not noted for his élan. He was not a warrior intent on proving his manhood but a long-service professional pursuing a career; his goal and reward was not a hero's death but a severance grant upon retirement. Roman weapons, far from being universally more advanced, were frequently inferior to those used by the enemies whom the empire defeated with such great regularity. Nor could the secular survival of the empire have been ensured by a fortunate succession of great feats of generalship: the Roman army had a multitude of competent soldiers and some great generals, but its strength derived from method, not from fortuitous talent. The superiority of the empire, and it was vast, was of an altogether more subtle order: it derived from the whole complex of ideas and traditions that informed the organization of Roman military force and harnessed the armed power of the empire to political purpose. The firm subordination of tactical priorities, martial ideals, and warlike instincts to political goals was the essential condition of the strategic success of the empire. With rare exceptions, the misuse of force in pursuit of purely tactical goals, or for the psychic rewards of purposeless victories, was avoided by those who controlled the destinies of Rome. In the imperial period at least, military force was clearly recognized for what it is, an essentially limited instrument of power, costly and brittle. Much better to conserve force and use military power indirectly, as the instrument of political warfare.
Together with money and a manipulative diplomacy, forces visibly ready to fight but held back from battle could serve to contrive disunity among those who might jointly threaten the empire, to deter those who would otherwise attack, and to control lands and peoples by intimidation — ideally to the point where sufficient security or even an effective domination could be achieved without any use of force at all. Having learned in the earlier republican period how to defeat neighbors in battle by sheer tactical strength, having later mastered the strategic complexities of large-scale warfare in fighting the Carthaginians, the Romans finally learned that the most desirable use of military power was not military at all, but political; and indeed they conquered the entire Hellenistic world with few battles and much coercive diplomacy.
The same effort to conserve force was also evident in war, at the tactical level. The ideal Roman general was not a figure in the heroic style, leading his troops in reckless charge to victory or death. He would rather advance in a slow and carefully prepared march, building supply roads behind him and fortified camps each night in order to avoid the unpredictable risks of rapid maneuver. He preferred to let the enemy retreat into fortified positions rather than accept the inevitable losses of open warfare, and would wait to starve out the enemy in a prolonged siege rather than suffer great casualties in taking the fortifications by storm. Overcoming the spirit of a culture still infused with Greek martial ideals (that most reckless of men, Alexander the Great, was actually an object of worship in many Roman households), the great generals of Rome were noted for their extreme caution.
It is precisely this aspect of Roman tactics (in addition to the heavy reliance on engineering warfare) that explains the relentless quality of Roman armies on the move, as well as their peculiar resilience in adversity: the Romans won their victories slowly, but they were very hard to defeat." (Luttwak)

"Innocent of the new science of 'systems analysis,' the Romans nevertheless designed and built large and complex security systems that successfully integrated troop deployments, fixed defenses, road networks, and signaling links in a coherent whole. In the more abstract spheres of strategy it is evident that, whether by intellect or traditional intuition, the Romans understood all the subtleties of deterrence, and also its limitations. Above all, the Romans clearly realized that the dominant dimension of power was not physical but psychological — the product of others' perceptions of Roman strength rather than the use of this strength. And this realization alone can explain the sophistication of Roman strategy at its best." (Luttwak)

Hard to defeat

[Notes] — See above.

The three systems

[Notes] — "Three distinct systems of imperial security can be identified over the period. We may properly speak of systems, for they each integrated diplomacy, military forces, road networks, and fortifications to serve a single objective. Moreover, the design of each element reflected the logic of the whole. Each system was intended to satisfy a distinct set of priorities, themselves the reflection of changing conceptions of empire: hegemonic expansionism for the first system; territorial security for the second; and finally, in diminished circumstances, sheer survival for the imperial power itself. Each system was based on a different combination of diplomacy, direct force, and fixed infrastructures, and each entailed different operational methods; but, more fundamentally, each system reflected a different Roman world-view and self-image.
With brutal simplicity, it might be said that with the first system the Romans of the republic conquered much to serve the interests of the few, those living in the city — and in fact still fewer, those best placed to control policy. During the first century A.D. Roman ideas evolved toward a much broader and altogether more benevolent conception of empire. Under the aegis of the second system, men born in lands far from Rome could call themselves Romans and have their claim fully allowed; and the frontiers were efficiently defended to defend the growing prosperity of all, and not merely the privileged. The result was the empire of the second century A.D., which served the interests of millions rather than thousands.
Under the third system, organized in the wake of the great crisis of the third century, the provision of security became an increasingly heavy charge on society, a charge unevenly distributed, which could enrich the wealthy and ruin the poor. The machinery of empire now became increasingly self-serving, with its tax-collectors, administrators, and soldiers of much greater use to one another than to society at large. Even then the empire retained the loyalties of many, for the alternative was chaos. When this ceased to be so, when organized barbarian states capable of providing a measure of security began to emerge in lands that had once been Roman, then the last system of imperial security lost its last support, men's fear of the unknown." (Luttwak)

Security and deterrence

[Notes] — "The siege of Masada in A.D. 70-73 reveals the exceedingly subtle workings of a long-range security policy based on deterrence. Faced with the resistance of a few hundred Jews on a mountain in the Judean desert, a place of no strategic or economic importance, the Romans could have insulated the rebels by posting a few hundred men to guard them. Based at the nearby springs of Em Geddi, a contingent of Roman cavalry could have waited patiently for the Jews to exhaust their water supply. Alternatively, the Romans could have stormed the mountain fortress. The Jewish War had essentially been won, and only Masada was still holding out; but this spark of resistance might rekindle at any time the fire of revolt. The slopes of Masada are steep, and the Jews were formidable fighters, but with several thousand men pressing from all sides the defenders could not have held back the attackers for long, though they could have killed many." (Luttwak)


[Notes] — "The Romans did none of these things. They did not starve out the Jews and they did not storm the mountain. Instead, at a time when the entire Roman army had a total of only twenty-nine legions to garrison the entire empire, one legion was deployed to besiege Masada, there to reduce the fortress by great works of engineering, including a huge ramp reaching the full height of the mountain. This was a vast and seemingly irrational commitment of scarce military manpower — or was it? The entire three-year operation, and the very insignificance of its objective, must have made an ominous impression on all those in the East who might otherwise have been tempted to contemplate revolt: the lesson of Masada was that the Romans would pursue rebellion even to mountain tops in remote deserts to destroy its last vestiges, regardless of cost. And as if to ensure that the message was duly heard, and duly remembered, Josephus was installed in Rome where he wrote a detailed account of the siege, which was published in Greek, the acquired language of Josephus, and that of the Roman East." (Luttwak)

8.2 Roman infantry

[Notes] — The tireless, hard-working infantrymen were the backbone of the Roman army.
The life of the Roman soldier was full of hardship and exposed to all the risks of military life.
According to Roman sources, during the First Punic War (3rd century BC), one unit was ordered to march an average of 16 miles a day for 4 entire weeks, and probably each soldier was carrying on his shoulders 50-60 pounds, between food and other supplies.

Discipline, propaganda

[Notes] — Discipline and obedience were the pillars of the culture of the Roman army, and punishments were so harsh that Roman soldiers sometimes may have been more scared of their own officers (of what might happen if they disobeyed their orders), than of the enemy.
The image of disciplined Roman troops, waiting for orders bravely and patiently while facing an agitated horde of screaming barbarians accompanied by women and children, was dear to Roman historians: it soon became a commonplace and a regular feature of Roman propaganda.
You can find images of the weapons and 'uniforms' of the Roman soldiers, plus the machines that they used in battle or during a siege here, at

Josephus: the Roman army

[Notes] — If you are interested, you can read in Josephus how organized the Roman army was.
Of course, Josephus was not the most impartial of historians; here is his 'official disclaimer': "This account I have given the reader, not so much with the intention of commending the Romans, as of comforting those that have been conquered by them, and for the deterring others from attempting innovations under their government."

Order, security

[Notes] — Here is a passage from The Jewish War, by Josephus:
"When they have thus secured themselves, they live together by companies, with quietness and decency, as are all their other affairs managed with good order and security."
"Each company hath also their wood, and their corn, and their water brought them, when they stand in need of them; for they neither sup nor dine as they please themselves singly, but all together."

Chain of command, ranks

[Notes] — "Their times also for sleeping, and watching, and rising are notified beforehand by the sound of trumpets, nor is any thing done without such a signal."
"In the morning the soldiery go every one to their centurions, and these centurions to their tribunes, to salute them, with whom all the superior officers go to the general of the whole army, who then gives them of course the watchword and other orders, to be by them carried to all that are under their command...".
"[...] which is also observed when they go to fight, and thereby they turn themselves about on the sudden, when there is occasion for making sallies, as they come back when they are recalled in crowds also."
"When, after this, they are gone out of their camp, they all march without noise, and in a decent manner, and every one keeps his own rank, as if they were going to war."

Letters of soldiers

[Notes] — The following link takes you to a page with the contents of two short letters written by Roman soldiers to their families: Letters of two recruits (these are simple examples of documents illustrating everyday life in ancient Roman society).

If the gods so will

[Notes] — The Romans were very superstitious, so religious buildings and statues were sometimes left intact during military campaigns. Many small items would be stolen from the temples anyway: on the Arch of Titus in Rome you can see a Jewish menorah being paraded in Rome after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.

The End

Titus Manlius Torquatus has his son beheaded because he disobeyed an order